Emma Smith: ‘Books do extraordinary work, but we can overstate their importance’

The Shakespeare critic and author on her new history of books and readers, and how it’s made her think about the contents of our shelves

Emma Smith is professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her bestselling book This Is Shakespeare was praised by the likes of Hilary Mantel and Margaret Drabble. She is an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio – the 1623 first collected edition of his plays, and one of the most valuable books in the world. She has written books about the First Folio and in 2016 was called upon to authenticate a newly discovered copy at Mount Stuart library on the Isle of Bute (it was genuine). Smith also hosts Approaching Shakespeare, a podcast series. Her latest book, Portable Magic, is a history of reading that explores the way books have shaped our social, cultural and political lives.

Did your work on the First Folio steer you towards writing this history of the physical book?
I think that’s probably true. And my investment in how that book was transformed from a fairly normal product of the print marketplace into this glass-case icon. I was really interested in thinking about that book in the history of libraries and the collecting of books and the values that these practices put on books.

Portable Magic by Emma Smith is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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